Envisioning Democracy for Ottawa

Peace and Environment News, May–June 2007
by Mike Buckthought

In April, Mayor Larry O’Brien announced his plan to transform Ottawa, proclaiming the start of “1,000 days of change.” He called for closed-door meetings, to be held at the Pineview Golf Club. And what would be discussed, at a golf course? The city’s priorities, for the next few years. City councillors were invited, but he forgot to include the public — until there was an outcry.

An exercise in participatory budgeting? Not exactly. When a corporation creates long-range plans, it holds retreats in the country, and executives talk about profits, and increased “efficiency.” Mayor O’Brien has called for a more “business-like” approach. This new corporate approach may include the privatization of public services.

There is another approach. We do not need “corporate visioning exercises,” because we already have a long-range plan, called Ottawa 20/20. It was drafted after much public input, and it describes a new kind of city. Not an uncaring city, obsessed with tax cuts, but a city that is able to re-invent itself.

Ottawa 20/20 addresses the chronic underfunding of the arts: “A creative city must be able to sustain a concentration of artists, creative people, cultural organizations and creative industries.”

The Transportation Master Plan recommends increased support for public transit: “The City’s growth management strategy aims to increase transit’s peak hour share of motorized person-trips to 30 per cent. This is almost twice today’s level, and compares well to many large European cities.”

Ottawa has forgotten about its long-range plans — plans that were approved by City Council. Elsewhere, cities such as Toronto and Vancouver are investing billions of dollars to create new transit lines. Ottawa, by contrast, is going backwards — back to the suburban sprawl of the fifties. The 2007 Budget calls for millions of dollars in road construction, and the Province plans to widen Highway 417.

There used to be money for cycling. Now, this so-called “city with swagger” can’t afford to spend $50,000 to teach children how to cycle safely. It doesn’t care all that much about day cares. The idea of keeping up with inflation was kept out of the debate. Back in March, a proposed 2 per cent funding increase was turned down.

The solution to this mess? We need to return to Ottawa 20/20.

How to get from here to the year 2020? Citizens need to have a say in our city’s budget. It is not something to be left to executives, meeting behind closed doors.

We can learn from the experiences of other cities. Participatory budgets have been used in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and other cities around the world. We can learn from their successes and failures.

Citizens in Montréal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal have started the experiment — adapting the idea of participatory budgets, experimenting and innovating. We need to learn from their experience.

Democracy starts here — not behind the closed doors of a boardroom, but in public spaces illuminated by shared ideas and experiences.

For information about activities planned by Imagine Ottawa and the Ottawa Budget Coalition, visit: www.imagineottawa.ca. Ottawa 20/20 is available online: www.ottawa.ca/2020.

Mike Buckthought writes about environmental and social justice issues.

Peace and Environment News, Volume 22, Numbers 4–5, May–June 2007, page 1.